On privilege and abundance: Reflections on Kenya
By Jen Christie
Making my coffee this morning was so easy. I push a button on a machine. If the water canister is empty, I just turn on the tap. When we’re out of beans, there’s a bag in the cupboard to fill the grinder that costs as much (or more) than some Kenyan’s monthly salary.
It’s my first morning back home after nearly two weeks in Kenya and except for some jet lag, everything in my life is about to go back to how it was before our adventure.
Except, reaching for the honey in the pantry, it is now starkly obvious how hard it will be to go back to how I was before traveling to Kenya.
There are containers of flour, sugar, sauces, spices and other dry goods. All luxuries in a Kenyan kitchen and enough to feed a family for the rest of the year.
Even the fridge I took the milk from and the running water in the tap are luxuries many Kenyans do not know.
For seven days, Stewart, Donald and Larry Skinner and I lived among a Kenyan farm family. Stewart looked after organizing the adventure as he has been to the community several times. Leading up to the trip, he said, “there is no difference between us, except they were born in Kenya and I was born in Canada.”
Many of us in Canada are so consumed with our day to day, we never stop to consider the privileges we are afforded here and how that gives us an advantage. It doesn’t discount anyone’s hard work but it certainly provides a head start in our lives compared to many others.
I also appreciate there are many people in Canada who do not enjoy all the privileges I do as a white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class woman with a supportive and stable upbringing and good health.
Privilege has become a dirty word in social media. It tends to get thrown around in an attempt to dismiss perspectives and shut down dialogue. Why is this?
I am no psychologist so I do not have an answer. I can only speak from my own experience and realize for others it may be different.
Understanding and becoming comfortable with our privilege is actually deeply uncomfortable. It requires us to consider who we are, where we come from and how history has impacted us compared to others. For me, travel has been instrumental and realizing and appreciating my privilege.
While Canada and Kenya are both commonwealth countries, we got our independence much sooner and it is not lost on me that my experience growing up in Canada is that of the “white settler”.
Kenyan independence came nearly 100 years later than Canada’s and we spent a long evening discussing the implications of this over Tusker beers. Some in Kenya would say they are also 100 years behind Canada.
It maybe wouldn’t be the case, were it not for the rampant corruption which exists within the political system in Kenya. It permeates everything and everyone.
It means that no matter how hard one works to build a life or business does not guarantee it won’t be taken away in an instant. An individual with political power may decide your business is so lucrative, they want a cut and suddenly you are regulated into non-existence. Or political unrest may lead to its destruction in an instant.
To employ people and generate wider economic benefit essentially requires one to already have money to pay all the seemingly arbitrary fees, licenses, and random tariffs to operate. One example of this is county tariffs that are collected from businesses trying to sell products outside their home county.
Another is the KEBS seal required on product packaging, which costs about 500,000 shillings (approximately $5000 USD). Where do all these fees and tariffs go?
It is obvious it does not go into infrastructure. Roads are not maintained, and the best paved roads were built by the Chinese. There is currently no other infrastructure to move goods across the country, despite an incomplete 3 billion Ksh railroad through the Rift Valley.
Only about 50% of Kenyans have electricity (Source: World Bank), and most everywhere we went in Trans Nzoia, homes had no running water or indoor plumbing. This, despite multiple tenders being awarded and paid out to build a pipeline. The projects never happened even though another pipeline takes the region’s water to a nearby city.
So, most people collect their water from a community well or bore hole, if they have the means to drill one. Despite there being good water in the area, many people still boil the water to be safe. The time required, for mostly women and children, to collect water over the course of a day and boil it over a clay fireplace is significant. And with school starting at seven, it’s an early morning for the children who help with this chore.
There is no public healthcare, so an illness can wipe out an entire family’s wealth, requiring everyone to step up, sometimes even selling their businesses to pay hospital bills.
Adding further strain to social systems is the large family size. Despite a 2017 Population Reference Bureau report finding Kenyan’s average family size is decreasing and the lowest in East Africa, (Source: The East African) the population is still exploding and jobs do not appear to be keeping up.
Youth unemployment is especially high. The actual figures seem debatable but there is no denying the number of young people hanging out on the roadsides. Those with some money may be able to open a shop or purchase a “piggy piggy” to run a “boda boda” – a motorbike taxi and dangerous venture from our experience on the roads.
Like Canada, there are plenty of opportunities in agriculture for young Kenyans. However, the industry is still subject to all the concerns I’ve outlined above and more with government competition distorting prices and essentially keeping most farmers to sustenance-production only, which limits the entire sector.
There are strategies to transform agriculture and employ youth in the sector. East of Nairobi, Embu County has developed a comprehensive plan and 4-H is a key part. While there, we visited two schools who have started the first 4-H clubs in Trans Nzoia and interest is high in both schools as youth are looking for opportunities to get ahead in their future.
The challenges are not all insurmountable, nor are they all unique to Kenya but they certainly reinforce the abundance of privilege I have here in Canada. Our nation’s basic tenets I don’t even think twice about — the rule of law and free and open democratic process — are not yet guaranteed in Kenya and yet people are persevering to make a better life for those around them.
This realization put much needed perspective on my own life and the extent to which I can control my destiny and create positive change for others. The self-doubt and detractors will always be there but now more than ever, I believe there really is no better place in the world from which I can pursue my ambitions than Canada.
Jen Christie writes from Ottawa, On. This post originally appeared on Chrsitie’s blog: https://savvyfarmgirl.wordpress.com/